Making Combat Matter in Shakespeare and Videogames

Nearly every bit of combat in Shakespeare’s plays appears with a generic stage direction: “They fight.” On the stage, these fights sometimes actualize this generic quality. The actors clash their swords, and after their often lengthy encounter, finally return to acting the play.

Vidogames that are otherwise lauded for their dramatic storytelling face the same issue: the development of character and plot halts to make room for unrelated sword-swinging or gunfire.

“Get on with the story,” I think as I sit with either a game controller or a play program in my hand.

The problem is that, in either medium, the sign system changes when fighting starts. Dialogue and violence are two different modes of signification, and it’s all too easy for theater practitioners and game developers to let each language live in isolation, telling two unrelated stories. When complicated moral questions in the dialogue of Mass Effect, for example, fall away in a “shoot all the bad guys to win” combat scene, the two sign systems are telling unproductively inconsistent stories.

So how can theatre practitioners and game developers make combat work together with narrative? Fortunately, particularly on the theatrical side, many already work toward that synergy.

In theatre, fight choreographers and directors have two major solutions to this combat problem in Shakespeare’s plays. The first is to pull bits of dialogue from around the fight scene, and insert them between or during movements in the fight.

I’ve twice had experience with this approach. When I played Sir Clyomon in the early modern play Clyomon and Clamydes, we borrowed one line of each of the dueling characters from just before their fight in the script, and placed them after the fight’s first phrase.

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Likewise, in a stage combat class that I took, my fight partner and I chose for our final presentation the King Lear duel between the disguised hero Edmund and his evil brother Edgar. In the play’s text, it is only after the fight that Edgar reveals his identity. In our version of the scene, we moved the reveal to the middle of the fight. This helped integrate the fight more deeply into the play’s plot, and motivated Edgar to fight with more passion after the reveal, creating a more dynamic character-centric fight.

Shifting dialogue isn’t always a practical option, though. A more widely applicable practice is to clearly reflect each character’s personality in their in-combat behavior. A dishonorable character can fight dirty, for instance.

Experienced fight choreographers localize fights to the needs of particular characters, and work with the director and actors to integrate the fight and the rest of the play into a consistent narrative.

While theatre practitioners and fight choreographers have had centuries to integrate combat into the larger narrative, videogames don’t share that lengthy history. Many games that otherwise focus on plot and character development seem rather clueless about how to bring these elements to their “kill everything” streams of combat.

And unlike Shakespeare’s plays, where puns and sex jokes far outnumber fight scenes, games spend much (sometimes most) of a player’s time with gunfire and sword-clashing. So not only do many games fail to bridge the gap between combat and the larger narrative, but this failure smacks the player in the face every time they gun down a random enemy. No wonder a Bioware writer suggested adding a “skip combat” function to games If the combat was actually relavent to the larger experience, the inability to skip it would be a non-issue.

Some games do make progress toward making combat matter to the larger game. Three that have particularly effective moments are Telltale’s Game of Thrones, Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, and Jager’s Spec Ops: The Line.

Game of Thrones’s effectiveness comes from making a particular combat moment about the development of the friendship between two characters, rather than about killing bad guys. In a scene of episode 4 of the game, your character, Asher, has a confrontation with his close friend Beskha. Beskha is drunk on the eve of returning to a place from her past, and her frustration and anxiety at having to return become anger that she directs at Asher. They fight, and it feels like Beskha’s trust in Asher is on the line. After the fight comes a confession from Beskha about her past. So, the scene builds from an emotional source, explodes in an emotional fight, and ends with an emotional aftermath. This moment of combat is clearly a piece of the game’s character development.

Heavy Rain raises the narrative stakes of combat by maintaining the constant threat of permanent character death. The game centers on a father trying to save his son from harm. The player plays him and three other characters trying to find the boy. In combat, characters are legitimately in mortal danger. A misclick can result in incidents of death or failure that, rather than resetting the game to an earlier point, continues the story, stacking the odds against the player in their ultimate goal of saving the boy. Actions in combat have extraordinary consequences for the game’s larger narrative.

While both Game of Thrones and Heavy Rain are creative and effective in their approaches to integrating combat with narrative, their approaches are limitedly applicable to other games. Both games use quick-time-events for their combat, a system that is more controlled and adaptable (and some would say less “fun”) than shooter combat, and other systems more often seen in popular games.

Spec Ops: The Line, however, succeeds in integrating shooter mechanics with character development and narrative in ways no other game does. It injects character development into combat by altering the stock phrases the playable character, Captain Walker, shouts during combat. Early in the game, Walker’s phrases while giving orders and shooting down enemy combatants are professional and detached. “Take out that target”; “Target terminated.” After Walker experiences the first major traumatic incident of the game, however, his stock phrases change radically. “Shoot that asshole”; “Got you, bastard.”

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Not only does The Line inject character into combat, but it also presents narrative choices through the lens of combat. Where most games introduce a menu when the player reaches a narrative decision point, The Line keeps the choosing in the crosshairs. When you are told you must punish one of two criminals based on who you judge more guilty, or when you decide whether or not to put a dying out of his misery, you choose by pointing and shooting – the very means of action you have in the combat scenes. In The Line, the line between narrative and combat is constantly crossed, making for a more integrated experience.

Looking forward, I hope more games can learn how to integrate combat into the larger narrative, taking cues from other games and from theatre. I want the same for productions of Shakespeare. Ultimately, I never again want to yawn and say “oh good, another irrelevant fight scene” when watching a play or playing a game. I want to be deeply engaged with the narrative and characters, even when those characters are shooting guns or swinging swords.

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Striking similarities between Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us

As a close look at both games, this post contains major plot information from Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us. It is recommended for those who have already played both games to the end.

Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us are perhaps the two most critically acclaimed games of the year thus far, and for good reason: they both have deep, emotionally moving moments and are ripe for critical discussion of their characters and themes. Especially interesting is to look at them side by side and see the surprising number of similarities. Some are just fun things to notice, while others are definitely worth talking about, partly because the two games’ approaches to these shared themes also highlight what makes them each quite different experiences.

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Rough’n tough male protagonists who first push the daughter-figure away, and warm up to her over time until he would do anything to keep her

This is a common theme in our culture’s narratives, where the tough-guy protagonist keeps the childish character firmly outside his emotional walls at the start, but slowly starts to care about her deeply. So why point it out if it’s so common in general? Well, it’s an interesting similarity when contrasted with another recent game about fatherhood: The Walking Dead. In The Walking Dead, Lee immediately cares about Clementine and takes on the fatherly role, whereas both Booker and especially Joel are resistant at first. In Infinite this becomes very interesting when you learn about how  complicated Booker’s relationship with her was before. In The Last of Us it’s interesting because of Joel’s obviously close (but also distant, note Sara’s card for Joel where she says he isn’t around much) relationship with Sara in the game’s prologue. The way Sara’s death changed him becomes clear in his early response toward Ellie, and the situation also makes the game dramatically interesting as he slowly but surely begins to care very deeply for her as a daughter-figure.

Troy Baker: Booker and Joel

This is just a fun one: Troy Baker is an incredibly prolific voice actor, particularly in the video game industry. And for good reason: he brings a lot of life to the characters of Booker and Joel. And quite different life to each of them – while I noted the similarities between Booker and Joel above, they are still quite different characters, and Baker believably portrays them both.

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A woman of color who leads the resistance against the oppressive “Man”…

…who ends up being, arguably, just as bad as the oppressive man when she does something horrible that shocks the main character and the player.

This is a very problematic theme in the two games. I would argue it’s far worse in Infinite, where Elizabeth beats you over the head with it, repeatedly saying things like “she’s just as bad as Comstock! They’re perfect together!” It comes to a head when Elizabeth kills her to save a poor little white boy in danger. Outside this eventual portrayal of Daisy, the game is very conscious of deeply-ingrained racism, evidenced most clearly by the placement of the “White Man’s Burden”-style painting covering the wall in the headquarters of Columbia’s version of the KKK. But then later you get this portrayal of Daisy Fitzroy, a moment where a black man beats a white man to death because he got a job he wanted (intended to shock the player), and the fact that the player is rewarded for being the heroic white man who saves the interracial couple from being killed, instead of the narrative giving them any agency over their own fate.

The Last of Us is problematic in a similar way, but I think it takes a more interesting approach to the issue. Yes, Marlene decides to sacrifice the life of a teenager, in a manner which is bound to shock and anger the player (potentially encouraging prejudiced beliefs in the player) – but if you get to the end of the game and actually think about it, you realize that Joel is probably a far worse human being than Marlene. You eventually realize that you and Joel just slaughtered everyone who was trying to save the human race, and since Joel then lies to Ellie about what happened at the very end, it’s abundantly clear that it was for purely selfish motives. Marlene tells him that she would want to sacrifice herself for the sake of everyone else, but Joel doesn’t take that into consideration. He sells out humanity so that he can be with someone he cares about, in comparison to Marlene, who sacrificed her own feelings for the sake of humanity. She’s no saint, but neither is Joel – what may seem to encourage prejudice gets complicated at second glance.

Protagonists who play guitar

Another fun one. You may have found the scene in Infinite where Booker plays the guitar as Elizabeth sings “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” In The Last of Us, Joel’s guitar can be seen near the TV in his and Sara’s house in the prologue, and Joel and Ellie talk about playing the guitar later in the game. It’s also impossible to miss the beautiful music throughout the journey, which is most prominently played on the guitar.

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The Damsel in Distress

The Damsel in Distress is a widely used trope in our culture, especially in video games (explained and examined very well in Anita Sarkeesian’s videos here). In both these games the daughter-figure is in danger, and the male hero must save her: in Infinite it’s when Elizabeth is being tortured and future-Elizabeth says you need to go and save her. In The Last of Us it happens twice, after Joel wakes up from his illness and when Ellie is taken away for surgery. Infinite perpetuates this trope, while The Last of Us complicates it in both situations.

During the first use of this trope in The Last of Us, Joel pushes himself physically and uses violence to save the damsel in distress. But when he gets there, she has just managed to save herself, stabbing predator David in the face repeatedly. She didn’t need his help to defeat the enemy – but it’s clear that she’s emotionally traumatized by the situation. Joel is then there for emotional support, in a very emotionally moving scene. Does this encourage problematic gender roles because it’s a violent situation that traumatizes her? Or does it subvert them because Joel ends up being the emotional support (typically the domain of a mother) rather than the expected heroically violent hero?

Now, in the finale of the game, Ellie actually is herself helpless – she’s unconscious throughout the whole situation. But as I mentioned in the above section about race, Joel’s actions in retrospect are not good, heroic deeds. He murders people for his own selfish reasons and then lies to her about it. Again we face a conundrum: is this problematic because Ellie had no agency throughout this entire ordeal, or is it a useful way of highlighting the inherent problems of only the man wielding agency when the girl is in danger?

Either way, it’s fascinating, and it’s one of the things that makes the game worth talking and writing about. Both Infinite and The Last of Us are remarkable in certain aspects, doing some things very well that few if any games have done at all – but of course, nothing is perfect, and it’s important to closely examine the potentially problematic messages our media offers up for consumption. It helps us be aware of the problems and still be impressed by things well done.

What do you think about these factors that are prevalent in both games? Are there any others that you noticed?

First-person perspective: a poor solution to gender issues

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A couple weeks ago, Kaitlin Tremblay at Medium Difficulty made an interesting post about her experience with first-person games, arguing that she finds it easier to identify with characters in a first-person perspective as a female gamer because the effects of the male gaze aren’t as readily apparent. While this may be helpful in alleviating the obvious and pervasive effects of the male gaze that can stop someone from playing a game, I don’t see the first-person perspective as a solution to any of the underlying problems of the gaze’s gender issues.

One particular idea of hers caught my eye:

“If female characters have typically existed only to be looked at, then removing them visually and collapsing them in gamer/character removes this gendered aspect of the gaze”

When it comes to the playable protagonist, this “removing” of the ability to see him or her certainly has an effect on how the gaze works. In the first-person perspective, the player can easily identify with the protagonist regardless of gender and side-step the over-sexualization in the representation of most female heroines. However, this actually does nothing to disestablish the gendered aspect of the gaze because the protagonist is not the only person on screen.

The effects of the male gaze have as much to do with the object as they do the subject (player), and every non-player character one encounters is a potential object. What happens when the female gamer, having easily identified with her character, comes across a non-playable female character in the game? If the key to the male gaze holds true for the game – that it is built with a male audience in mind – then that female character will still be presented as a passive object that does nothing to further the narrative. The player/protagonist is inherently an active participant in a game’s narrative – in almost all cases, the playable character of a game is the one who furthers the story the most. In Hollywood, Mulvey sees the “man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story.” Even if the female player takes on that primary role, the male gaze’s effects are seen in every other character of the game. The majority of other characters will likely be male, and many of them will be active participants in the narrative. The female characters, on the other hand, will continue to be represented as the passive objects, and while camera angles may not be tools easily used in first-person games to objectify them; artistic style and bouncing animations, along with a lack of active participation within the narrative, maintain the female as the passive object of the player’s gaze.

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In most cases, the first-person perspective makes it easier for the player to identify with the subject of the male gaze, but he or she will still see the female characters as passive females if the player’s perspective is all that changes. For a male player, this has absolutely no effect on his perspective of gender roles, as he retains the position of subject that he has in almost any narrative he sees, reads, or plays. For a female player, it only has the effect of allowing her to participate in the male gaze of the passive woman. Instead of troubling the existence of the unequal binary showcased in the male gaze, this just allows her to temporarily shift to the privileged side of the binary. When she walks away from the game, her view of herself may have changed, since her experience as the active subject may fortify feelings that despite the gender roles drilled into us by media, she herself can be active, rather than passive. But her view of other women has no reason to change at all, seeing them as passive, since the women you actually see in a game are still by and large passive objects who don’t contribute to the narrative. Thus, the first-person perspective allows movement across the male/female binary, but it has no revolutionary effect on anyone’s view of either side of the binary.

What can be done to actually disrupt the overwhelming dominance of the male gaze in games? Well, that requires a completely different perspective for the game developers from the very beginning of story and character development. As Tremblay says, “Audiences are changing.” Women make up a huge part of the video game consumer base, and the hyper-masculine games clinging desperately to a male perspective simply don’t appeal women of them for obvious reasons. And for male gamers like me, it’s hard not to find the stereotypical portrayals of men and women more boring and frustrating with each game that gets pumped through the industry. If audiences are changing, they can only do so much to help themselves avoid the negative feelings of the male gaze. A significant portion of the work needs to come from developers.

Helpful Sources:

Kaitlin Tremblay’s “First Person Perspective and the Untroubled Gaze.”

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

No medium is purely artistic

Jeapardy and The Wire

It goes without saying that there is a significant difference between Jeopardy! and The Wire. One is a non-artistic game show; the other is an artistic drama. The only thing that they share is the medium of television. If someone was advocating for more artistic analysis of television shows – having in mind shows like The Wire – I could easily walk in and claim that Television is not an art form because Jeopardy! is not an example of art, so the The Wire can’t be art either. But that claim would be absurd. The fact that Jeopardy! has never tried to be art doesn’t disparage the artistic qualities of The Wire.

Likewise, the medium we call Video Games contains a wide range of forms. League of Legends is a competitive battle game where the player’s interaction revolves around attempts to master mechanics to defeat opponents, faithful to historic definitions of the word “game.” Heavy Rain, on the other hand, is dramatic in nature. The interaction revolves around character choices and desperate attempts to save the protagonist’s kidnapped son. Interaction is an aspect of both, but used in two completely different ways. League of Legends shares more with Basketball or Chess than it does with games like Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain and Telltale’s The Walking Dead are works of art as much as any decent dramatic film.

Each Medium helps inform the works that are made through it, but all mediums still contain a wide range of forms. There is not a single medium that is purely art. The Great Gatsby and the cookbook in my kitchen share a medium, both being written works, but they aren’t both pieces of art; they serve wholly different functions.

There are certainly a lot of examples of Video Games that share qualities with both artistic forms and non-artistic forms*, but the breakdown is still useful in analyzing games. Different tools should be used for different forms. Some games will benefit from applying theory about sports play and Game Theory, while the analysis of other video games would be better informed by long-standing artistic approaches to Literature, Film, or Theatre. The meaning of any work does not come from its medium; the form has a more dramatic effect on the content. If we are going to analyze video games, we need to be sure we recognize different forms and the different analysis approaches that they require.

– Mark Pajor

*In fact, almost all games are blends of both. Even the example I used as a non-artistic game, League of Legends, has plenty of lore and character description posted on its website for each of the champions available to play. However, League of Legends clearly focuses more on the competitive aspects of the game, making it a good example of a game in a non-artistic form.